Canons of Criticism

Contents: Introduction * Outline of the Canons * External Critical Rules * Internal Critical Rules * How to Use the Canons of Criticism * Footnotes


Although detailed methods vary, there are really only two ways to edit a Bible text. One is to print a text based on some sort of external control (the Textus Receptus, the text found in the majority of manuscripts, the text found in B/03). This may be useful, and may fit the publisher's assumptions, but it hardly constitutes editing. Its's more an exercise in reading an illegible hand.

The only other way is some form of eclecticism -- picking and choosing between readings. And, unless one is content to print a chaotic text, choosing between readings requires some sort of guidelines. These guidelines are the "canons of criticism."

Outline of the Canons

Different editors have listed different rules, and applied them in different ways. Some have listed dozens of criteria,[*1] others only a handful. No matter how many rules they list, all fall into one of two categories: Internal criteria (pertaining to the logic of readings) and External criteria (pertaining to the manuscripts containing the readings). Thus there are only two fundamental canons:



All other canons -- no matter how numerous or how detailed -- are simply corollaries or specific examples of these two rules. (The only so-called "critical method" which does not operate on this basis exception is the Byzantine Priority technique which simply counts noses. As no editor has ever published an edition based solely on this criterion, we can ignore it.)

Still, as any mathematician will tell you, the general rule may be pretty, but it's usually much easier to apply specific formulae.[*2] The sections which follow describe some of the better-known rules for criticism that various scholars have used. Note that, since each is a specific case of a general rule, they should only be applied in the appropriate situation. The discussion tries to describe the situations in which which each rule applies. I've also tried to list who first proposed the rule, or who popularized it.[*3]

External Critical Rules (pertaining to manuscripts)

That reading is best which is supported by the best manuscripts. This was the fundamental tenet of Hort, and has been followed by many others -- including even Lagrange and Weiss, who in theory explicitly rejected it. This is a good rule if all the best manuscripts support a single reading (i.e. if all the leading manuscripts of all the early text-types agree), but should not be applied by itself if there is disagreement among the text-types. Still, this rule may be the final arbiter if all other criteria fail. Also, to apply this rule, one must have a precise definition of the "best" manuscripts. Unless one is Hort, and prepared to follow B/03 blindly, this rule can be hard to apply.

The geographically superior reading is best. I deliberately state this criterion vaguely, because geography has been used in various ways by various critics. The usual sense used in New Testament criticism is Streeter's, who argued that the reading supported by the most diverse sets of "local texts" is best. I.e. his criterion is That reading is best which is supported by the most geographically diverse manuscripts. That is, if reading X is supported by manuscripts from Rome, Carthage, and Alexandria, while reading Y is supported only by witnesses from Byzantium, reading X is to be preferred. This was stated most forcefully by Streeter (although the rule goes back to Bengel). All things being equal, this is a good rule, but there are two limitations. First, good readings may be preserved in almost any text (e.g. there are many instances where scholars read the text of B/03, perhaps supported by a papyrus or two, against all comers). Second, this rule can only be applied if one truly knows the provenance of manuscripts. (For additional detail, see the entry on Local Texts.)
There is, however, another rule based on geography, more commonly encountered in classical criticism but with some application to New Testament criticism, especially in studies of text-types and smaller textual groupings: The more remote reading is best. That is, isolated sites are more likely to preserve good readings, because manuscripts preserved there are more likely to be free from generations of errors and editorial work. This criterion, of course, cuts two ways: While a remote site will not develop the errors of the texts of the major centres, it is more likely to preserve any peculiar errors of its own. Remote texts may well be older (that is, preserve the readings of an older archetype); they are not automatically more accurate.

That reading is best which is supported by the earliest manuscripts. This was the basis of Lachman's text; he used only the earliest manuscripts. Today, it finds support from Aland (who has referred to the papyri as "the original [text]") and also Philip Wesley Comfort, who has the tendency to treat all papyrus-supported readings as accurate. It is, of course, true that the papyri are valuable witnesses, and that the support of early manuscripts increases the likelihood that a reading is original. But other criteria must take precedence. This is a rule of last resort, not a rule of first resort.

That reading is best which is supported by the most manuscripts. This is, of course, the negation of the theory of Hort, whose primary purpose was to dethrone the Textus Receptus. Although this rule has some modern supporters (e.g. Hodges, Robinson), it is generally rejected. Certainly those with scientific training will not be impressed with "Majority Rule." Modern eclectics of all types generally feel that, at best, this rule should be avoided until all other means of decision have failed. (Note: This is not saying that the reading of the Byzantine text is wrong. It's just that it's only one text type; adding more and more witnesses to the type does not change that fact.)

That reading is best which goes against the habitual practice of particular manuscripts. So, for instance, P75 and B have been accused of having exceptionally short texts -- of omitting (by design or chance) many pronouns and other "unnecessary" words. So where P75 and B have a long reading, their testimony bears particular weight. By contrast, D is considered to include many interpolations and additions. Where, therefore, it has a short reading, the short reading is considered especially probable. (This is the theory, e.g., behind the so-called "Western Non-Interpolations.") Note that this rule can only be applied if the habits of a particular manuscript are truly known.

That reading is best which endured longest in the tradition. That is, a reading which is found in manuscripts from (say) the ninth to fifteenth centuries is superior to one found only in the fourth and fifth centuries. This criterion, offered by Burgon, has recently been re-stated by Pickering.[*4] Moderns apparently apply this rule in some cases (e.g. Eph. 1:1, where most scholars include the words "In Ephesus," even though the manuscript evidence against them -- P46 Aleph B 6 424** 1739 -- is very strong). I know of no eclectic scholar who states the rule, though, and most of the time they actively reject its dictates; see, for example, 2 Cor. 12:9, where Aleph** A** D** K L 0243 33 330 1739 Byz (sixth through sixteenth centuries) read "my power is perfected in weakness," while P46-vid Aleph* A*vid B D* F G latt sa (third through ninth centuries) omit "my." The fact that every truly early witness omits "my," and that these witnesses come from three different text-types, counts for nothing when using this criterion. Therefore scholars reject the rule; all editions since Tischendorf (save Hodges & Farstad and Pierpont & Robinson) have omitted "my."

Great diversity of readings often indicates early corruption and perhaps editorial work. This principle, in use since the last century, has recently been forceably restated by Kurt and Barbara Aland. The difficulty, of course, lies in figuring out which reading is original when confronted by a wide variety. It should be noted, however, that in the case of such corruption, the original may be found in manuscripts which otherwise would not be found reliable. A good example is 1 Thes. 3:2, where the best-attested reading would appear to be diakonon tou qeou (Aleph A P 424** bo arm). Of the half-dozen different readings here, however, the best appears to be sunergon tou qeou, supported only by D* 33 d Ambrosiaster.

The continuous reading is best. Maurice Robinson, who strongly supports this rule, states it in full as follows: "In any extended passage where multiple sequential significant variant units occur, those MSS which offer strong support in less problematic variant units are more likely to be correct in the more problematic units if such MSS retain their group support without serious fragmentation of or deviation from such group." This rule only applies in groups of three or more points of variation. Let us consider the simplest example, of three sets of variants (call them A, B, and C). Suppose you can clearly decide the correct reading in A and C, but are not certain about the reading in B. In that case, the manuscripts which are correct in A and C are likely to be correct in B as well. The logic is that scribes are basically careful. They transcribe accurately if they can, but one or another condition may cause them to slip. If a scribe is transcribing most variants in a passage accurately, chances are that he or she will have done equally well in variants where we cannot assure his or her accuracy.
This rule is difficult to demonstrate in practice, because of the great diversity of methods of criticism. A reading which one critic considers uncertain may seem quite assured to another critic. And critics do not agree on textual groupings, either. It may not be possible to offer an example of this rule which would be accepted by all critics. Certainly I know of none. So I will offer a hypothetical example, not because I like using artificial examples but because I'd rather have a workable example.
Consider the following passage, based loosely on John 11:25. The variants are enclosed in curly brackets. We will assume that each reading is supported by a certain collection of text-types: A=Alexandrian, B=Byzantine, C=Caesarean, W=Western. (Note that one need not accept the existence of any of these types; any set of groupings would be acceptable here):
apekriqh {Ihsous AB | kurios Ihsous CW} {kai eipen BC | omit AW}, {egw BW | omit AC} eimi h anastasis kai h zwh.
Most critics would agree, based on either internal or external evidence, that the short readings Ihsous is correct in the first variant. And stylistic considerations dictate that the third variant should read eimi, not egw eimi. But what about the inclusion/omission of kai eipen? One reading is shorter and more direct, the other more typical of Johannine usage. So internal evidence, at least, fails us. In such a case, we turn to the criterion of the continuous reading. In this case, the Alexandrian text is clearly correct in the first and third readings. Chances are, then, that it is correct in the second reading also; we should omit kai eipen.
The danger with this criterion lies in over-applying it. This is not the same as the rule that the best manuscript/text-type is best. (Though Maurice Robinson believes that this lesser rule generalizes to that greater principle.) This is a local principle, applying to relatively short passages. Moreover, it is a secondary rule, applying only to uncertain variants in the context of variants which are secure.

That reading found in the majority of early text-types is best. OK, a personal opinion here: This is the rule. The whole story. If you have three early text-types (call them "Ptolemaic," "Romanesque," and "Cilician,") and two of them attest to a particular reading, doesn't it stand to reason that the majority of the text-types -- all of which go back to the original -- is more likely to be right unless there is some other explanation for how they came to be corrupted? Curiously, no one seems to have applied this rule on a consistent basis. The problem, of course, lies in determining what is a text-type and which of them are early. This is an area that doesn't get nearly enough attention -- which in turn means that this most basic and obvious and objective of rules is not stated, and rarely applied; no one is willing to do the work to apply it!

Internal Critical Rules (pertaining to the nature of variants)

The shorter reading is best (Lectio brevior praeferenda). This rule is found in most manuals, beginning with Griesbach, and certainly has its place. There were scribes who liked glosses, and there were scribes who would always prefer the longer reading (on the principle that it was better to have an extraneous word in scripture than to risk leaving something out). However, this rule must be applied with extreme caution (as Griesbach himself noted, adding exceptions for scribal errors and for minor omissions that do not affect the sense). The most common sorts of scribal errors (haplography) result in a shortening of the text. Also, there is a strong tendency among copyists to omit short words. (These first two errors are both characteristic of Aleph, for example.) In addition, there were scribes (the scribe of P45 is perhaps the most extreme) who freely shortened the text. Finally, despite Boismard, the short reading should not be adopted based only on arguments from silence (Boismard adopts a number of short readings in John on the grounds that patristic sources omit the words. This is not good evidence; the phrases in question may simply not have been relevant to the commentator's argument). Therefore the rule of the "shortest reading" should be applied only if the manuscripts with the short reading are reliable and if there is no evident reason why scribes might have deliberately or accidentally shortened the text. As a general rule, if a scribe makes a deliberate change, it will usually result in a longer text; if a scribe makes an error, it will more often result in a shorter text.
At this point it might be worthwhile to quote G. D. Kilpatrick: "There are passages where reasons can be found for preferring the longer text and there are others where we can find reasons for preferring the shorter. There is a third category where there does not seem to be any reason for deciding one way or the other. How do we decide between longer and shorter readings in this third category? On reflection we do not seem able to find any good reason for thinking that the maxim lectio brevior potior really holds good." ("The Greek New Testament of Today and the Textus Receptus," in Anderson & Barclay, The New Testament in Historical and Contemporary Perspective," 1965, p. 196.)
Still, there are cases where this rule is accurate, though usually for other reasons than simple brevity. An obvious example of the use of this rule is the several additions of "fasting" with "prayer," e.g. in 1 Cor. 7:5 (Mark 9:29 is also an example of this type, although it is perhaps a questionable instance since the external support for "and fasting" is very strong, and the words are found in all manuscripts which insert the sentence in Matthew. This implies that those who added the words to Matthew must have known them in Mark).

The hardest reading is best (Difficilior lectio potior or Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua). First offered by Bengel (for whom it was the basic rule), this is a good criterion; scribes were generally more likely to make texts simpler rather than harder. But some caution must be applied; scribes were capable of making errors that led to prodigiously difficult readings. (A good example of this is the peculiar readings that litter P66.) One should prefer the harder reading only when it is adequately attested and does not appear to be the result of error. Or, perhaps, the rule should be rephrased: Among readings which are possible, the hardest reading is to be preferred.

The reading most in accord with the author's style is best. This is a two-edged sword, since copyists were perfectly capable of conforming a peculiar passage to an author's style. Take the Gospel of John. There are dozens of instances of the phrase "Amen, amen, I say to you." Suppose the author had, in one instance, left out an "Amen"? Would this reading have survived in the tradition? Perhaps not. And if it had survived in one part of the tradition, might not an editor be inclined to reject it? If applied with caution, however, this rule can be very useful; it often allows us, e.g., to choose between verb forms (since most authors have a peculiar pattern of verb usage.) Of course, the usage of the author must be known very well.

The middle reading is best. This rule is rarely found in the textbooks, even though Griesbach had a form of it. It obviously only applies in cases where there are three (or more) readings. If there are three readings, X, Y, and Z, and a simple change will convert X to Y, and Y to Z, but no simple change will convert X to Z or vice versa, then Y is the middle reading (the one that could have given rise directly to the others), and is to be preferred. Of course, this only applies where X, Y, and Z all have early attestation. If one of the readings is late, then it could be a tertiary corruption.
An example of the use of this rule occurs in 2 Pet. 2:13. Here P72 Aleph A* C? 33 81 436 614 630 1505 2344 Byz read apatais, A** B Y 623 1243 1611 vg read agapais, and 322 323 945 (1241) 1739 1881 read agnoiais. Most editors explain away agapais as an assimilation to Jude 12. However, there are good arguments for its originality. In addition, it is the middle reading; both apatais and agnoiais could have arisen directly from agapais but could not have arisen from each other. Since all three readings are early, and agapais is the middle reading, it is to be preferred.

The reading which could most easily have given rise to the other readings is best. This approximates Tischendorf's formulation of the general rule "That reading is best which best explains the others." It is a direct corollary of the basic rule, and has much the same force as the preceding rule.

The reading which could not have arisen from lectionary use is best. Many continuous-text manuscripts were marked for lectionary use. Often this meant adding lectionary introductions, and often these introductions crept into the text (the praxapostolos 1799, for instance, is littered with lectionary incipits). If a reading might have arisen as the result of this error, it is probably to be avoided. Compare the following rule:

The reading which is counter to ecclesiastical usage is best. Offered by Eberhard Nestle, this applies mostly to passages found in the lectionary. It also argues against readings such as "Amen" at the end of epistles: With the exception of James (where "Amen" is found in 614 1505 2495 t hark pc), at least one uncial witness attests to "Amen" at the end of every New Testament epistle. However, the editors of UBS/GNT accept the word only at the end of Galatians, Jude, and -- in brackets -- 2 Peter.)

The disharmonious reading is best. This rule is usually applied in the gospels, where assimilation of parallels is common. If one reading matches the text of another gospel, and the other reading does not, then the assumption is that the unique reading is best. (Von Soden noted a special instance of this: All things being equal, scribes tended to assimilate to Matthew as the "strongest" of the gospels. If no other rule resolves a variant involving parallels, The reading which does not match Matthew is best.) This is a good rule, but must be applied with caution. As Colwell has shown, the most common sort of assimilation is assimilation to the immediate context. Also, scribes would sometimes assimilate to other, unrelated sources (e.g. hymns or other writings that sounded similar to the scripture being copied). So this rule should really be altered to read...
The less familiar reading is best. That is, if one reading is what you would expect a scribe to write, and the other is unusual or surprising, the latter is probably the correct reading. This is what Hort called "Transcriptional Probability." The only problem is guessing what was going on in the scribe's head as he wrote....
We can illustrate this with an example from the LXX. Consider Ezek. 38:13. The Hebrew text refers to "Tarshish." The translators of LXX glossed this to the more familiar "Carchedon" (Carthage). But the scribe of A was confused even by that, and converted it to "Chalcedon." We see this identical error in some classical texts, from the period when every Byzantine scribe knew the Council of Chalcedon but when Carthage was a forgotten city in the west: In Aristophanes, Knights 1303, manuscripts R V F refer to Carchedonians/Carthaginians, but G2 and some scholia mention Chalcedonians.

The reading which best fits the context or the author's theology is best. If we were absolutely sure of how the author thought, this would be a good rule. As it is, it is awfully subjective....

The reading which has the truest sense is best. Hort said that the best readings are those which, on the surface, don't make sense, but which, on reflection, show themselves more reasonable. Hence this criterion. Perhaps the best example of its application is the reading of UBS/GNT in 2 Cor. 5:3, where (following D* (F G) a d f** g) that text reads "if indeed, when we take it off, we will not be found naked." All other witnesses, starting with P46, read "...when we put it on, we will not be found naked." The UBS editors accept the reading "take it off" on the grounds that the other reading simply doesn't make sense.

The reading which avoids Atticism is best. With the Attic Greek revival of the early Christian centuries, Attic forms began to be used after some centuries of disuetitude. Kilpatrick, in particular, called attention to Atticising tendencies. The caution with this rule is to determine what is a truly Attic reading and what is legitimate koine. Parallel to this rule are the three which follow:

The reading which is characteristic of Hellenistic usage is best. Since the koine used a number of unclassical and uncouth forms, later scribes with more classical education might be tempted to correct such "barbarisms." This is another of the stylistic criteria of Kilpatrick and Elliot. Fee, on the other hand, denies it; scribes seem often to have conformed readings to the koine and Septuagint idiom.

The reading which resembles Semitic usage is best. Since most of the New Testament authors were native speakers of Aramaic, they would tend to use Semitic idiom in violation of Greek usage. Copyists, as native Greeks, might be expected to correct such readings. This is again the argument of the thoroughgoing eclectic school (compare the preceding rules), and again there are those who argue that scribes would be more likely to prefer Septuagintal usage.

Parallel to the two preceding is The reading which is less like the Septuagint is best. This is another of those tricky rules, though. It's certainly true that some scribes would tend to conform to the Septuagint. But this has even more than the usual complications. It must be remembered, for instance, that most copies of LXX were made by Christians, and they might often conform LXX to the New Testament usage more familiar to them -- meaning that the harmonization, rather than being in the NT, is in LXX! And then, too, NT authors often deliberately used LXX language which scribes might mistake.

That reading which seems to preserve an ungrammatical form is best. A trivial example is Mark 6:29 (hlqan/hlqon), where first and second aorist stems are interchanged. Most applications of this rule are to equally trivial matters -- although sometimes they may reveal something about the scribe who produced the manuscripts.

If one reading appears to be an intentional correction, the reading which invited such a correction is best. Alternately, That reading which is most likely to have suffered change by copyists is best. Proposed by Tischendorf. This is fundamentally the same as preferring the harder reading. If a reading calls out for correction, of course some scribes will correct it. They are hardly likely to deliberately create a reading which requires such correction. An obvious example is Mark 1:2. Here Aleph B (D) L D (Q) (f1) 33 565 (700) 892 1241 2427 it arm geo read "As is written in Isaiah the Prophet," while A W family 13 579 Byz read "As is written in the prophets." The citation which follows is, of course, from several sources, only one of which is Isaiah. While it is possible that scribes corrected "in the prophets" to "in Isaiah the Prophet" based on parallels (since so many NT citations are from Isaiah), it is much more likely that scribes corrected "in Isaiah the prophet" to "in the prophets" to eliminate the errant reference.

The reading which could have given rise to the others accidentally is best. Or, as P. Kyle McCarter puts it, Look first for the unconscious error. This is a very important rule in Old Testament criticism, where independent witnesses are few. It is less applicable in the New Testament, where witnesses are frequent and where errors of spelling or dittography are less likely to give rise to a meaningtul variant. However, if one reading could have given rise to another by an accidental error (e.g. by omitting a doubled letter or a short word or syllable), that reading is clearly to be preferred.

The reading which is susceptible to a heterodox interpretation is best. This rule does not often apply, but when it does, it is important. A reading which lessens the dignity of Christ, for instance, is usually preferable (unless it is supported only by highly questionable sources). Examples of readings where this criterion applies include:

If there were any doubt about the operation of this rule (and there shouldn't be, because we see Origen casting out the "Jesus Barabbas" reading because he didn't like its implications), we can see its operation in action in classical texts. In Odyssey XIII.158, the manuscripts read mega de, which causes Zeus to say to Poseidon, in effect, "Go ahead! Flatten those Phaeacians for being kind and hospitable to visitors." This was so troubling that Aristophanes of Byzantium claimed the proper reading must have been mhde, which makes Zeus reluctantly allow a limited punishment rather than adding refinements to Poseidon's capricious cruelty. This sort of theological tampering continues today; the Richard Lattimore translation of the Odyssey accepts this reading.

The reading which contains unfamiliar words is best. Offered by Metzger (following Griesbach) in conjunction with some other observations about scribes. This can happen (it happens very frequently in oral tradition), but is not as likely as it sounds. (Consider the word epiousion in the Lord's Prayer. No one to this day knows what it means with certainty -- but scribes never tried to change it!) If a scribe knows a word, he will not object to copying it. If the word is unfamiliar, how is the scribe to know what word to replace it with? In applying this criterion, it is best to know the peculiar habits of a particular manuscript.

If, in a variant reading, one reading is subject to different meanings depending on word division, that reading is best. I don't remember where I came across this, and I can't cite an example by chapter and verse; it certainly doesn't come up often. (Souter gives two examples, 1 Tim. 3:16, omologoumenws or omologoumen ws and 2 Tim. 2:17, gaggraina or gaggra ina. But neither of these involve variants in the actual text.) But I recall a variant something like this. Suppose some manuscripts read OIDAMEN and others KAIOIDA. Since the former could be read as either oida men (two words) or oidamen (one word), and so is ambiguous, it is preferable.

If a reading is a conflation of two shorter readings, the shorter readings are best (though the correct reading must be decided on other grounds). This rule, used by Hort to demolish the Textus Receptus, is good as far as it goes, but conflate readings are actually very rare. The best-known example is probably Luke 24:53. Here P75 Aleph B C* L sin cop geo read "blessing God," D a b e ff2 read "praising God," and the remaining witnesses (including A C** W Q f1 f13 33 892 1241 Byz) read "praising and blessing God." Since the reading "praising and blessing God" is a conflation of the Alexandrian reading "blessing" and the "Western" reading "praising;" it is to be rejected. As between "blessing" and "praising," the decision must be made on other grounds. (Most scholars would prefer "blessing," both because it is the Alexandrian reading and because it is more presumptuous -- how dare people "bless" God? But this decision must be made based on other criteria.)
Another good example is Matthew 10:3, where the readings "Lebbaeus called Thaddeus" and "Thaddeus called Lebbaeus" are obviously attempts to combine the Alexandrian reading Thaddeus and the "Western" reading Lebbaeus.
In using this rule, one must also be careful to try to reconstruct how the conflation came about. For example, in Mark 15:39 there is a possible conflation, since the various readings are exepneusen, outws exepneusen, kraxas exepneusen, and outws kraxas exepneusen. I have argued elsewhere that the manuscript evidence here indicates that the "conflate" reading outws kraxas exepneusen is most likely original.

The true reading is best. This is offered by Wordsworth and White, who stated it as, "The true reading wins out in the end." Although this might be interpreted as an argument for the majority text, or the late medieval text, that is not how Wordsworth & White used it. How this rule is to be applied must therefore be left as an exercise for the reader.

The reading which is contrary to the habits of the scribe is best. This can be applied to individual manuscripts, in which case it is hardly a canon of criticism, but is very useful in assessing the habits of a particular scribe. For example, D/05 has been accused of being anti-Jewish and anti-Feminine. If, therefore, it has a reading that is pro-Jewish or pro-Feminine, that reading is likely to predate the prejudiced handling of D (compare the examples in the next item). Similarly, if P75 is given (as many believe it is) to omitting pronouns, and somewhere it has a pronoun not found in other Alexandrian witnesses, the evidence for the longer reading is strengthened because P75 went against its habit, implying that the reading comes from its exemplar. This criterion, although appealed to by eclectics of all sorts, is apparently particularly dear to Elliot and the thoroughgoing eclecticists. If applied at a level above that of individual manuscripts, though, it says little more than "study what Hort called 'transcriptional probability.'"

That reading which violates the prejudice of scribes is best. This may sound like the previous rule rehashed. It isn't, exactly, although it also applies first and foremost to individual manuscripts. This has been pointed up by Ehrman and others in connection with the Christian prejudice against Jews. So, for example, if one reading is anti-Jewish and the other is neutral, the neutral reading is to be preferred. (Ehrman offers John 4:22 as an example, where some versional witnesses read "salvation is from Judea" rather than "...from the Jews.")[5] Also falling in this category is the treatment of Prisca the wife of Aquila. Her name occurs six times. In four of these instances (Acts 18:18, 26, Rom. 16:3, 2 Tim. 4:19), her name appears first in the best witnesses (she is listed second in Acts 18:2, 1 Cor. 16:19). But in Acts 18:26 (D 1175 1739 Byz), some manuscripts demote her to the position after Aquila. In addition, in Rom. 16:3 (81 223 365 630 876 1505 1881** ful* pm), 1 Cor. 16:19 (C D F G 81 Byz a d ful tol), 2 Tim. 4:19 (206 223 323 429 436 876 2412 a ful al) the manuscripts listed demote her name from "Prisca" to the diminutive "Priscilla." This could just be assimilation to the more familiar usage -- but it could be prejudice, too.

Where the same variant occurs in parallel passages, each variant is original somewhere. I have not seen this canon formally stated (and so provided my own statement), but it is used in a number of places (e.g. by the editors of the New English Bible). Three examples may best explain the situation:

  1. Matt. 8:28=Mark 5:1=Luke 8:26, Gerasenes/Gadarenes/Gergesenes
  2. Matt. 10:3=Mark3:18 Lebbaeus/Thaddaeus
  3. 2 Pet. 2:13=Jude 12 AGAPAIS/APATAIS

In the first instance, the NEB reads Gadarenes in Matthew, Gerasenes in Mark, and Gergesenes in Luke. In the second, it has Lebbaeus in Matthew and Thaddaeus in Mark.
One must take great care in applying this criterion, however. The NEB approach is probably wrong, at least in the case of the Lebbaeus/Thaddaeus variants. The key observation has to do with text-types. In both Matthew and Mark, the Alexandrian text reads Thaddaeus, while the "Western" text reads Lebbaeus. (The Byzantine text conflates in Matthew.) In other words, this is not a case where the two gospels had different readings but where two different traditions had different names for this apostle. We are not trying to decide which name to use in which book; rather, we must decide between the two names overall. Whichever name is original in one book is original in the other.
This is not to say that this criterion is without value. One must simply be very careful not to use it where it is not relevant.

If a similar variants occur in several places, the reading more strongly attested in the later points of variation is best. Or, as Maurice Robinson phrases it, "If a particular type of phrasing recurs several times within a book, but in a form rarer than that normally used by the writer, scribes would be tempted to correct such a reading to standard form at its earlier occurrences, but not in its later occurrences." This rule apparently goes back to Wordsworth and White.

As for what it means, it means that if a scribe is confronted with a particular reading -- especially one which seems infelicitous or atypical of the author -- he is likely to correct it the first few times he sees it. After seeing it a few times, he is likely to give in -- either due to fatigue or as a result of saying something like, "Well, he's said it that way three times now; I guess he meant it."

We in fact see some instances of this in Jerome's work, though in his translation activity rather than in his copying; early in the Vulgate gospels, he was much more painstaking in conforming the Old Latin to the Greek; later on, if the Old Latin adequately translated the Greek, he didn't worry as much about making sure parallel Greek structures translated into parallel Latin structures. This seems to be a good rule, in principle. In practice, I can't cite a place where it would be used.

Finally, never forget Murphy's Law of Textual Criticism: If you can imagine an error, a scribe has probably made it. (For that matter, scribes have made a lot of errors you can't imagine.) To put it another way: Never underestimate the sleepiness of scribes. Scribes who work long hours inevitably get tired, and as they reach the close of the day their vigilance will wane. (Zuntz thought he observed this in P46 in Hebrews, and I see signs of it in C3 throughout the New Testament.) The result can be hilarious errors. Perhaps the most famous is found Luke's genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). In codex 109, the genealogy was copied from an exemplar where the genealogy was written in two columns. The scribe of 109 converted this into one -- without observing the gap between the columns! As a result, instead of God standing at the head of the list, the ancestor of all is Phares and God is the son of Aram. It is possible that the strange version of the Parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-31) found in D lat is also the result of such a stupid error. Confronted with two versions of the story (one in which the first son went and the other in which the second did so), a very early "Western" copyist corrected one form part way toward the other -- and wound up with the absurd conclusion that the son who refused to work was the one who did his father's bidding! This rule needs always to be kept in mind in assessing criteria such as "the harder reading."

We find another curious example from an Anglo-Norman manuscript of sermons by Robert de Greatham. Charlton Laird (The Miracle of Language, pp. 185-186) tells this story: "The scribe who copied the manuscript finished a line which ended in a form of peché (sin). Whether or not this particular scribe had some Freudian interest in sin, when he flicked his eyes back to the manuscript he was copying from he hit upon another peché which was the last word in the seventh line previous. Accordingly, he copied the same seven lines twice.... No two of these lines agree. Here was the same scribe, with the same [original], who copied the same passage twice within a quarter hour, and he does not produce one single line which is identical in both copies. Nor is he consistent in his own spelling of common words."

Always look to see what errors a scribe could have made!

How to Use the Canons of Criticism

Different scholars apply the canons very differently. Some place most of the weight on external criteria; others on internal. Some analyse readings starting with internal criteria, others with external. In other words, people have different rules for using the rules! [*6]

An article such as this cannot, or at least should not, tell you what to do. But it might be appropriate to describe how some editors approach the problem.

As the least of all textual critics, I will start with me. I begin by looking at text-types. If all early text-types (of which there may be as many as four or five) agree, then I am done. If, however, the early text-types disagree, then I shift to examining the variant. If there are multiple readings, I attempts to construct a local stemma. (In doing so, we should note, the evidence of the number of types is very important. If one type has a certain reading, and all the others have a different reading, the more common reading is much more probable.) If a stemma can be constructed successfully, this resolves the variant. If no certain stemma can be constructed, I adopt the variant supported by the most text-types; if the types are evenly split, and only then, do I turn to the earliest/best type.

Hort's method (as reflected in the edition of Westcott & Hort) was basically similar, except that he had only two early text-types, and one of them (the "Western") was very bad. So Hort frequently was constructing stemma within the Alexandrian text, or simply setting aside the "Western" reading and adopting the text of B. Hort did not list canons of criticism, although he stressed the role of "intrinsic probability" (what the authors had written) and "transcriptional probability" (what scribes did with it). His summary of the causes and nature of errors is still relevant today.

The Alands stress the importance of "local genealogy" (the stemma of the various texts in a variant).[7] It is interesting to note, however, that their text very much resembles Hort's. In effect, they were bound by manuscripts as much as he was (note how many of their "Twelve Basic Rules for Textual Criticism," rather than being true canons of criticism, simply stress the importance of manuscripts, or are truisms -- e.g. "only one reading can be original").

Von Soden's approach was genealogical in another sense. He tended to work based on the majority-of-text-types, after making allowances for corruptions (e.g. from Tatian and Marcion) and for harmonizations. His method, whatever its theoretical merits, was badly flawed by his imperfect text-types and his inadequate knowledge of the sources he blamed for corruptions.

Harry Sturz's proposed approach (which did not result in a complete text) is to print the reading found in the majority of text-types (Alexandrian, Byzantine, "Western"), with little or no attention to internal criteria. Since the Byzantine text, in the gospels, agrees with the other two more often than they agree with each other, his gospel text appears to be strongly Byzantine.

Also Byzantine are the texts of Hodges & Farstad and Pierpont & Robinson, both of which accept the Byzantine Majority text as original and apply various criteria to restore that text.

The "rigorous eclectic" school of Kilpatrick and Elliot gives almost all its attention to internal criteria. Although it is not entirely true, as some have charged, that they only use manuscripts as sources of variant readings, it is certainly true that they resolve most variants based entirely on internal criteria, and will accept readings with minimal manuscript attestation.

B. Weiss theoretically used techniques similar to those of the "rigorous eclectics," based primarily on internal criteria and with especial focus on suitable readings and those appropriate to the author's style. In practice, however, he came to rely rather heavily on B as the best manuscript (and so produced a text with significant similarities to Westcott and Hort).

Tischendorf's approach was in some ways similar; most of his criteria were based on internal evidence (though he stressed that readings needed to be found in old manuscripts). It is not too surprising that the text of his eighth edition (his ultimate work) heavily favored his personal discovery, Aleph.

The method used in the first twenty-five editions of the Nestle-Aland text need hardly be discussed here, since it was based exclusively on earlier published texts. It was consensus text of Westcott & Hort, Tischendorf, and Weiss (after the third edition).

Lachmann printed the text found in the majority of the early manuscripts. His text therefore fluctuated badly depending on which manuscripts survived for a given passage.

So how does one decide what method to use, and which canons to emphasize? Despite the words of Michael Holmes,[*8] that still remains very much up to the reader. Perhaps this piece will give you a slightly fuller menu to choose from.


1. Von Mästricht's 1711 edition -- arguably the first to include rules for criticism -- listed forty-three canons! Most of these are not what we would today call "criteria"; they are observations about (often attacks on) scribes, or methods for deciding what is or is not a variant. But they are historically important, since both Wettstein and Bengel were influenced by them.
It should be noted, however, that the first real study of textual criticism from the modern standpoint is that of Wilhelm Canter in 1566. Syntagma de ratione emendandi scriptores Graecos outlined many classes of errors, and probably influenced Bengel at least.
The best summary of the history of criteria is probably Eldon J. Epp, "The Eclectic Method in New Testament Textual Criticism: Solution or Symptom," printed in Eldon J. Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents 45, Eerdmans, 1993). The extensive section on canons of criticism begins on page 144. The history shows clearly how much of the theory of criticism goes back to Bengel; see especially the summary on page 148. [back]

2. If you want an example, consider this: I learned to add starting in first grade. Thus I was doing arithmetic, following a specific rule, when I was six years old. It was not until I was a junior in college that I was first exposed to what mathematicians call "The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic" (that each number has a unique prime factorization). Thus I learned the specific rules a decade and a half before I learned the general rule. And, to this date, I have never used the Fundamental Theorem of arithmetic. [back]

3. The list given here is compiled from a variety of modern manuals, most of which list only the author's own critical canons -- if they list canons at all. This list attempts to show all the canons the various authors use, whether I approve of them or not. The list of works consulted includes Hammond, Metzger (both the Introduction and the Textual Commentary), Vaganay/Amphoux, Kenyon, Aland & Aland, Black, Lake, and Greenlee, as well as a variety of special studies, most particularly by Epp and Colwell. I also looked at several Old Testament commentaries, and of course the book by Pickering cited below. Not all of these books list canons of criticism (indeed, some such as Lake hardly even mention the use of internal criteria); in these cases I have tried to reconstruct from the examples or from miscellaneous comments. It will be noted that some of these rules are closely associated with classical textual criticism, but that others are unique or nearly unique. For example, New Testament criticism does not rely upon manuscript stemma to the extent that classical studies do. This is largely due to the massive numbers of Biblical manuscripts (among Classical sources, only Homer is within an order of magnitude of the number of NT sources), which make true genealogical studies very difficult. [back]

4. Wilbur N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text (Nelson, 1977), p. 134. On pages 129-138, Pickering offers the first modern support for Burgon's seven "Notes of truth" -- criteria by which a reading is determined to be original. These are:

  1. Antiquity, or primitiveness -- which to Pickering means that an original reading must be found before the Middle Ages (!).
  2. Consent of witnesses, or number ("a reading attested by only a few witnesses is unlikely to be genuine").
  3. Variety of evidence, or Catholicity (witnesses from many different areas).
  4. Continuity, or Unbroken Tradition ("A reading, to be a serious candidate for the original, should be attested throughout the ages of transmission, from beginning to end.... If a reading died out in the fourth or fifth century we have the verdict of history against it. If a reading has no attestation before the twelfth century, it is certainly a late invention.")
  5. Respectability of witnesses, or weight. (Note that Pickering, in offering this criterion, adds "The oldest manuscripts can be objectively, statistically shown to be habitual liars, witnesses of very low character...." Since Pickering can be demonstrated to have about as much understanding of statistics as the average lungfish, one must wonder how seriously to take his comments here.)
  6. Evidence of the Entire Passage, or Context (referring not to internal evidence but to how reliable a particular manuscript is in a particular section of the text).
  7. Internal considerations, or reasonableness (Pickering applies this only to readings which are "grammatically, logically, geographically, or scientifically impossible," and gives as an example Luke 19:45, where he apparently prefers "The sun was darkened" to "the sun was eclipsed"; Pickering cites four other examples, but in none of them was I able to determine which reading he preferred and why.)

It will be noted that all of Burgon's "Notes" except #4 (the canon to which this note refers) are accepted by other textual critics -- but generally applied in very different ways! If Pickering's version of Burgon's criteria were applied consistently, then the search for "the original text" would be nothing more than an examination of the Kx recension. Kx is, by Pickering's standard, old (the earliest manuscript, E/07, dates from the eighth century); it is always the majority reading (according to Frederik Wisse, The Profile Method for Classifying and Evaluating Manuscript Evidence, Studies & Documents 44, Eerdmans, 1982, 53% of the manuscripts of Luke are Kx at least in part); its sheer bulk ensures its "catholicity," "continuity," and "weight," and -- by virtue of being Byzantine, and therefore relatively easy -- its readings are "reasonable." [back]

5. Bart D. Ehrman, "The Text as Window: New Testament Manuscripts and the Social History of Early Christianity," printed in Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, eds, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research (Studies and Documents 46, Eerdmans, 1995), p. 366. [back]

6. Eldon J. Epp (in "Decision Points in New Testament Textual Criticism," printed in Epp and Gordon D. Fee, Studies in the Theory and Practice of New Testament Textual Criticism (Studies and Documents 45, Eerdmans, 1993)), pp. 39-42, speaks of "The Crisis of Criteria," and even goes so far as to describe the present use of "reasoned eclecticism" as a "cease-fire" between the proponents of internal and external criteria (p. 40). This obviously implies an earlier state that was nearly a shooting war.... [back]

7. Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (translated by Erroll F. Rhodes, 2nd Edition, Eerdmans, 1989), p. 281, item 8 -- and elsewhere. [back]

8. "In short, reasoned eclecticism is not a passing interim method; it is the only way forward. As long as our subject matter is, to paraphrase Housman, the human mind and its disobedient servants, the fingers, hopes for a more objective method will remain an impossible dream." Michael W. Holmes, "Reasoned Eclecticism in New Testament Textual Criticism," printed in Ehrman and Holmes, p. 349. [back]